Parable of The Talents, by Father Basil William Maturin

“It will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one – to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

“Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’

“[Then] the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’

“Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.’

“His master said to him in reply, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'” – Matthew 25:14-30

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This Parable incidentally teaches –

1. That all God’s gifts are given to us in their germ, and depend upon us for their development The five Talents have the capacity, in the skilled hand of their possessor, of producing five talents more; but it requires his energy and determination to develop them. They do not increase by an inherent capacity in themselves, the power is in the man, not in the gift. No powers of body, mind, or spirit are given us in a state of ripeness and maturity, they are entrusted to us in an undeveloped condition; the work of life is to discover and unfold all that can be got out of our gifts. They are handed over to us, these Talents of our Master, entrusted to us for life to make what we can, or what we like out of them, or, if we are so minded, to make nothing out of them at all, but to leave them to rust and decay. We are entirely free as to what we may do with them, we may use them or abuse them, or leave them altogether unused.

But it is necessary sometimes that we should remind ourselves that no gift is so great as to overmaster the will, and force its own growth. All depends upon what we will do with our Talents. In considering, therefore, the value of any great endowments of heart, or intellect, or soul, before we can measure their real worth, there is one other thing that we must consider, the will of the man who owns them; the ultimate value and usefulness of all those gifts depends upon the character of the will. If it be unstable, or unreliable, or weak, or lacking in perseverance, the noblest gifts may prove worthless. We meet with many men of great talents from time to time who have never made any use of them, either for themselves or for the world, because they were too slothful to endure the discipline and self-restraint necessary to develop them. God has so ordered that the value of any gift, however brilliant, depends upon the character, not the character upon the gift If the character is strong and firm, and serious and conscientious, the gifts unfold in such a genial soil and enrich the whole person with their fruits, but if the character be lacking in such virtues, the gift that was full of so much promise will never ripen, nor will its owner be any the richer for it

It is interesting for us to notice that God has so ordered our life that, in handing over to us the Talents with which He entrusts us, He bids us, if we would make the best of them, gather around them a well-disciplined army of virtues to unfold their treasures, for virtue alone seems to understand the manipulating of these gifts, what to do with them, and how to do it They become crystallised, or decay and fall to pieces in the hands of vice, or indeed of any other powers except virtue.

This is certainly true of every Talent, even though it develop to its fullest capacity in a bad man, and even though he only uses it for bad, or at any rate, unworthy ends. Nevertheless, the Talent, whatever it may be, grows under the hand of virtues alone. Suppose the case of a most unprincipled and unscrupulous man of business who has got that special gift, whatever it may be, which from the first ensures him success. He uses this gift to push his way at the expense of many another man; he never hesitates to do a dishonest act if it is likely to advance his ends one inch. That great gift has to all appearances peen developed amidst a devil’s brood of vices, lying, dishonesty, selfishness, hardness, cruelty. But is this really the case? On the contrary, if you could have watched the growth of that great Talent, you would have seen that its guardians and instructors were not vices, but such virtues as a patience that never grew weary, hope that never yielded to the discouragement of failure, a vast and wide-reaching self-denial, and years of self-discipline in which pleasure and many forms of self-indulgence were sacrificed to the development of this Talent, a tenacity of purpose such as we find in saints and martyrs, a self-control that seemed a fair imitation of the Christian virtue that only grows under the influence of the grace of God. No, the Talent developed and matured not under the hands of vice but of virtue; virtue was the only voice it obeyed, virtue the only touch to which it responded.

As the Talent grew, the man used it for selfish and evil purposes, and it hatched a hornet’s nest of vices, but it was itself the child, the pupil of virtue. Yes, and every vice that touched it injured it, and tended eventually to weaken its power.

Thus the Talents are entrusted to men in their undeveloped state, that the character of those to whom they have been given may be trained by the effort to develop them, and stimulated by the promise which they hold out Those servants as they received from their master the many or few Talents, could have scarcely realized how their whole moral character must necessarily at once gather around and depend upon the development and use of their Talents. Their development was, as a matter of fact, the one question before the Throne of Judgment

Now we readily perceive that all this is true of natural gifts, the gifts with which we are born into the world. We know that they are given us only in germ, and that it depends upon ourselves whether they are ever developed or not But it is equally true of supernatural gifts, the gifts bestowed upon us at our second birth in Baptism. If it requires years of study to develop the powers of the intellect, it needs even more to develop the powers of faith and grace. For we must remember that all those spiritual gifts which are bestowed upon us in Christ through Baptism, depend upon our will for their development just as truly as do the gifts of nature. People often speak and act as if they expected the powers of grace and faith to assert themselves spontaneously, and to develop by their own inherent force, but they are mistaken. If they were to do so, the character would be none the better for such external ornaments – they would not enrich or develop in any sense the person. These gifts, however great and however supernatural, cannot work independently of the will. The will must take them and use them, and weave them into the very texture of our being. The weakness in and distaste for the things of the spiritual life can, in many cases, be traced to the same kind of feeling that a man experiences when, with an untrained and undisciplined mind, he tries to think out some deep problem. The will is too sluggish to hold the mind concentrated, and he gives it up in disgust.

Thus in the special aspect of life which this Parable is meant to present to us, life’s failure is traced to the failure to recognize the moral responsibility that rests upon all to develop the powers committed to them, and that in the refusal to do this, the virtues, under whose care alone these powers can be developed, are not found, and so the whole character is left undeveloped.

‘He fixed thee midst this dance
Of plastic circumstance.
This present thou, forsooth, wouldst fain arrest;
Machinery just meant
To give thy soul its bent,
Try thee and turn thee forth, sufficiently impressed.’

‘Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou oughtest to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.’

2. But, again, the Parable incidentally shows us that God’s gifts are unevenly distributed. We cannot deny that it is so with natural gifts; experience forces the fact upon us every day. ‘To one. He gives five; to another, two; to another, one.’ It is so with the distribution of this world’s goods, with gifts of intellect, influence, personal attractions, and the multitude of things in life which equip and fit men for position and power. But while we recognize this in regard to natural gifts, we do not perhaps like to believe that it is the same with spiritual endowments.

Yet it undoubtedly is. Some are far more richly endowed with spiritual gifts than others. It is not merely through lack of earnestness of purpose or strength of will, or through lack of faith, that we are not all as full of love as Saint Francis, or as gifted with prayer as Saint Theresa, or as inflamed with zeal as Saint Paul. We have not got the spiritual gifts which they had. It would be as impossible for us all to be as great saints as these, as it would be for us to be as great writers as Shakespeare. And yet, I think that the failure to recognize this is sometimes the cause of complete spiritual failure.

People aim sometimes at what they have not the spiritual power to attain to, and because they so hopelessly fail to reach their aim, they despair and give up altogether. Doubtless the most common danger is the failure to aim high enough, the resting content with a low standard; but it cannot be denied, that there is, for some people at least, the other danger arising from a restless spiritual ambition that will not be content to tread the beaten path of humility and lowliness.

God does not ask of us the impossible tasks which some of us put upon ourselves. How many overtax their strength with prayers that are above the standard of their lives and beyond their spiritual capacity in length and expression. If some people would be sufficiently humble to acknowledge to themselves that they are not advanced enough in spiritual things to pray for so long a time, and would try to proportion the length of their prayers to their spiritual capacity, they would find that prayer was not a weariness and a hopeless struggle with a weakness that always triumphed, but a strength, a blessing, a joy, and withal a humbling and wholesome exercise. There is the same danger in the use of the Sacraments; too frequent Communions and Confessions not uncommonly lead to a revulsion of feeling which ends in the giving up of the Sacraments altogether.

All such cases, and there are many of them, can, I believe, be traced more or less directly to the failure, or the refusal, to recognize that spiritual gifts are as unevenly distributed as the gifts of nature, and that all are not capable of the same high standards in spiritual any more than they are in intellectual things. We may say of the gifts of faith, of prayer, of the love of God, of the spirit of mortification, ‘to one He gave five talents, to another two, and to another one.’ No doubt, to be content with a low standard is one thing and a very bad thing, but to be content with one’s gifts is wholly another and a very good thing. He who is content with the standard that he has reached, has announced to the world his failure; and he who will never learn his limitations must fail as hopelessly, though his failure may have in it more noble elements. But he who has learnt his limitations, and then within those limitations strives for the best his talents permit him to aim for, has the secret not of failure but of success.

‘Ah! but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey.
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse.’ – Browning

3. But the Parable also teaches us that the final judgment is not concerned with the number of Talents possessed by each, but only with what each has done relatively to his own endowment The same words of praise and commendation are spoken to the man who had two talents as to him who had five, and no doubt it would have been the same with him who had only one, had he developed that one to its full capacity. God does not thus test the failure or success of our lives by their results as compared with others, but by the results as compared with the powers He has given to each individual If you have been given but one talent, you will be judged only by what that talent could have produced and was intended to produce; and though you may be surrounded on all sides by men of many more talents than yourself, if you honestly strive to get out of your one talent one talent more, you are as acceptable in His sight as any of them. ‘Lord,’ said one of old, ‘and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him. If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou Me.’ (John 21:21,22)

When once we turn aside and try to estimate the worth of what little we have been able to do in life, by comparing it with the work of another, we set ourselves utterly and fatally wrong. Such comparisons can only lead to self-satisfaction or to despair, results equally fatal to the soul’s true development It is remarkable that in this Parable the man who failed was the man with one talent, the man of fewest gifts, not, as we should have imagined, the man of many gifts. It would seem at first as if the experience of life would lead us to a different conclusion. The gifted men are the tempted men. Every additional gift brings with it a new temptation, it involves new responsibilities, it is likely to increase the influence of the man who possesses it, and to force him into positions which are surrounded with temptation. What do the poor, unnoticed, unneeded men in the world know of the temptations of those who keep the machinery of the great world going? ‘How hardly,’ said our Lord, of one class of gifts, ‘shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of God.’ (Mark 10:23) And Saint Paul tells us that ‘not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called; but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen; yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.’ (1 Corinthians 1:27,28) And yet here our Lord shows us the wise, the mighty, the noble – in other words, the talented men – true to God in life, and the poor and untalented as faithless.

And this certainly is true to experience also. If the men of great gifts have their great dangers, and when they do fail, their world-disturbing failures, those men whose gifts are below the average have very special difficulties and dangers of their own. It brings a man many temptations to feel that he is sought after, looked up to, depended upon; to feel himself in a position in which, by a tampering with truth or with honesty, he might in a moment spring into the first place in the land. It involves many temptations for anyone to know that his voice is supreme in science or art, or politics, or even in religion; to know that he has gifts that other men have not; that he can see further, that he can force men to think as he thinks, and to do what he wishes. But it involves a man in perhaps greater dangers to know that he is not needed, that no one cares what he says, that, in fact, he has nothing to say that is worth the trouble of saying; that whatever he may try to do there are others all around him who can do it better; to see the world filled with more capable men than himself, and to find that it makes no matter to anyone whether he tries to do right or hides himself away from care and disappointment behind his own good-for-nothingness. It must be a bitter humiliation to anyone to feel himself out of all the great movements of life; to know that he must never experience what he sees flashing in other men’s eyes, the excitement of competition or of success.

Such men have their difficulties, and they are great and pressing. They get by degrees a morbidly low opinion of themselves, and an exaggerated opinion of the powers of others. They learn to feel so sure that they will fail, and that others will surpass them, that finally they do not even try to succeed. These men and women run the danger of never doing anything, not even the little they can do, and might do well; they become timid and cringing, and mean-spirited and cowardly, and let all the life ebb out of them. And yet this low opinion which they have formed of themselves is the very reverse of humility; for humility is never morbid, never demoralising; indeed, one who gets into this way of contemplating himself as a failure, never can be really humble. Such people gradually lose all noble thoughts and high ambitions, and settle down into a quiet monotonous life of weak self-absorption and self-indulgence, and their hearts become full of bitterness and acrimony, blaming all the world for their unhappiness.

It has been well said, ‘This is the history of so much of the inefficiency of many of the men that we see about us. These men have looked at life and given up in despair. Once, long ago, when they were in college, when they first went into business, they took their Talent out and gazed at it, and wondered how they should invest it; but it looked so little that they lost all heart, and wrapped it in a napkin, where it has been ever since, and that is the whole story of their useless lives. And yet one thing seems clear, that only by the waking up of men like these, only by new courage put into their hopelessness,, can the world really make trustworthy growth. It seems very certain that the world is to grow better and richer in the future, however it has been in the past; not by the magnificent achievements of the highly gifted few, but by the patient faithfulness of the one-talented many. If we could draw back the curtains of the millennium, and look in, we should see, not a Hercules here and there standing on the world-wasting monsters he had killed, but a world full of men each of moderate muscle, but each triumphant over his own little piece of the obstinacy of earth or the ferocity of the brutes. It seems as if the heroes had done almost all for the world that they can do, and not much more can be done till common men awake and take their common tasks. I do believe the common man’s task is the hardest The hero has the hero’s aspiration that lifts him to his labour, and great duties are easier than the little ones, though they cost far more blood and agony. But surely we may come to feel that the very certainty that the world must be saved by the faithfulness of commonplace people is what is needed to rescue such people from commonplaceness in their own age, and clothe their lives with the dignity which they seem so woefully to lack, and which, if any man does not see somewhere shining through the rusty texture of his life, he cannot live it well’

Now what is the cause of the failure of these men? Why do very limited gifts tend to produce such characters? It certainly is not the necessary consequence of living with men of great talents; many such have been saints, and determined to do what little they could, and have achieved results altogether incommensurate with their gifts.

The man in the Parable shall tell his own tale, and give us the reason of his failure. He says to his Judge: ‘I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed, and I was afraid, and went and hid my talent in the earth.’ This was the reason of his failure; a radically wrong conception of the character of God, a conception which must indeed paralyze all moral action. The only thought which he had of God was one which inspired not love but fear, nay, which destroyed all possibility of love, for how could he love a God whom he could not respect, and how could he respect a God whose chief moral relationship to His creatures he believed to be injustice?

The words are few, but they disclose a long tale of bitterness and resentment, and indignant protest against his condition. His idea apparently was, that God expected a certain amount of work done which he had not the power to do; prayers said which he could not say, temptations resisted which he didn’t think he had the power to resist He tested himself, and found himself wanting according to his idea of God’s requirements, and then he folded the one talent which he knew that he did possess in a napkin, and buried it in the earth. And who could blame him? Who could thrive, or grow, or dare, or venture anything living in the frowning Presence of so relentless, so unjust a God? It would be impossible. Any man who had such a conception of God, in proportion as God was a reality to him, would find himself paralyzed and numbed in His Presence. There is nothing for it but to wrap whatever talents he may be possessed of in a napkin, and bury them.

We are not all of us aware, probably, what a strong influence in the formation of our character is our conception of God’s character. ‘Be ye perfect,’ says our Lord, ‘even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,’ (Matthew 5:48) in other words, be God-like. And, on the other hand, the Psalmist assures us that our conception of God’s character will be more or less reflected from our own. ‘With the holy thou shalt be holy, and with a perfect man thou shalt be perfect; with the clean thou shalt be clean, and with the froward thou shalt learn frowardness.’ (Psalm 18:26)

But we may ask further how did this man come to form so false a conception of the character of God as to suppose that He would judge him by a standard altogether independent of the gifts of nature and of grace which He had given him.

I think he formed it from a false view of life. His idea of life apparently was that it was a place of emulation, in which he must cope with, and surpass, or at least, equal others, or fail. He compared his powers with those of men about him, and found himself wanting; and then, instead of living his own life as best he could, and using what gifts he had, he allowed himself to be tormented with the spirit of envy and discontent His words seemed weak, his deeds seemed poor, when compared with those with whom his lot was cast He was ever living in the presence of, measuring himself by the standard and attainment of, others. What was the use of saying a few prayers at the end of a busy day, tired and exhausted, when he saw the length of time which others spent in prayer? What was the use of a few kindly acts done now and then to his fellows, when other men devoted their lives and wealth to help them? What was the use of saying now and again a word of protest against some crying evil, or, harder still, standing out against some evil custom, when one’s influence was so very small? And so one thing after another is given up, and he becomes more bitterly conscious how entirely he is left behind in the great movements of life. He is no use to anyone, and only a burden and a disappointment to himself. From this condition of mind it needs but a short step to attribute his failure to God. He leads himself to imagine that God asks of him what nothing but his own rebellious pride asks, and that his failure to do things which he was never intended to do is a failure before God. He will not listen to the suggestion of his conscience, that perchance God only asks of him the more lowly task, the less obtrusive life. And thus gradually, but surely, his life modifies and helps to shape his faith; and finally, he formulates his dark and cheerless creed, ‘Thou art a hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed. I am afraid of thee.’ If perfect love casts out fear, such despairing fear obliterates every trace of love. Such was the moral cause of this man’s misbelief, and eventually of the complete failure of his life. The lesson of the Parable is a bracing and an encouraging one. ‘Do what you can,’ it seems to say, ‘use your one gift, if you have only one,’ and it does not tell us of any who had no Talent; ‘don’t be discouraged because others can do so much more, and have so much larger opportunities than yourself. For each stands alone before God with his life so interlaced with all the concerns of the place and time in which he lives, that he cannot do his duty to God and neglect these things. Each in his own place, and amidst his own surroundings, must develop his talent, and so form his own character, help the world, and glorify God.’